Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

___

Jan. 26

The Tampa Bay Times on where Florida ranks in the vaccination process:

Depending on who’s talking, Florida is either a leader or a laggard in inoculating residents against COVID-19. And it’s possible to find data to back up either claim.

Florida, for instance, doesn’t look so good compared to Alaska and West Virginia, which lead the nation in the percentage of residents who have received at least one dose of the vaccine. But Florida has administered more of its available vaccine than Pennsylvania, Arizona and about 20 other states. Two data points, two different conclusions.

Many Floridians trying to get a shot have described the system as slow, frustrating and “absolute chaos.” On the flip side, a recent Wall Street Journal column said “those seeking solutions must come to grips with the reality of red states such as Florida, West Virginia and Texas accomplishing COVID inoculations, while blue California and New York falter.”

New York certainly bungled part of its rollout with its way-too-punitive rules that had too many hospitals and other vaccine providers worried that they would face harsh consequences if they vaccinated the wrong people. The unneeded bureaucracy reportedly resulted in wasted vaccines.

But how does Florida compare to New York and the two other largest states, Texas and California? Before jumping in, it’s worth noting that the figures will change quickly in coming weeks as states receive more vaccine and get it into residents’ arms. Also, some of the numbers are reported in different ways by different agencies, which can complicate direct comparisons. And states face many different challenges — some have more residents reluctant to get any kind of vaccine, for instance — better left for more extensive analysis.

With the disclaimers out of the way, we’ll look at two major measures — the number of people vaccinate per 100 residents and how efficiently states use the supply of vaccine sent by the federal government.

As mentioned, Alaska (12.88) and West Virginia (11.47) lead on the first measure. And North Dakota has administered an impressive 84 percent of the vaccine it has received, tops among the states.

As for the four big states, the current rankings depend on the data source. Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don’t always match numbers from local and state agencies. Either way, Florida fares well, though so does New York.

And none of the four largest states rank near the top or bottom compared to the rest of the states.

What about how efficiently the four big states get the vaccine into people’s arms? New York and Texas appear to be doing a better job than Florida, with California again bringing up the rear.

The takeaway from these two basic measures: Florida isn’t doing poorly, at least compared to all the other states, but it’s not exactly tops on the leaderboard. New York is faring better than you may have been led to believe, and California has some explaining to do.

Online: https://www.tampabay.com

___

Jan. 24

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel on a plan to build several new toll roads through rural Florida:

Paving pristine rural areas for three politically-motivated toll roads made no sense even before the coronavirus raged across Florida.

But with COVID-19 hitting the state budget hard, forging ahead with these boondoggles represents a classic case of misguided priorities — right up there with the Cross-Florida Barge Canal.

Given the state’s precarious finances, even the new chairman of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is skeptical about the need for these rural roads. Florida’s soaring Medicaid caseloads and the pandemic’s effects on public school budgets are urgent needs, she said, while the state’s long-range infrastructure can wait.

“It’s going to be a tough budget year,” Stargel told Capitol reporters recently. “A lot of the infrastructure things we had put into place may have to go to a little bit of a hold. We just don’t have the funds.”

The toll roads were the pet project of former Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, who made them his one demand in any deal sought by the Florida House and Gov. Ron DeSantis two years ago.

The Bradenton Republican claimed the through-fares would nurture economic growth in isolated communities, even though a significant number of affected communities have since said they don’t want them.

He also said the roads would create more hurricane escape routes, though Georgia officials have since said their roads aren’t prepared for new inroads from Florida. Besides, emergency planners now say it’s better for evacuees to shelter closer to home.

Galvano also glossed over the dangers to water and wildlife, including the protected Florida panther. Worse, he jumped the three toll roads to the front of Florida’s ten-year transportation plan, ignoring far more worthy projects whose backers had played by the rules.

At a minimum cost of $25 million a mile, these rural toll roads are expected to cost $26 billion — about one-fourth of this year’s state budget — over the next decade.

Together, the project known as M-CORES — for Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance — would add about 330 miles of new toll roads in the state’s lightly-traveled, land-locked interior.

One road would connect Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast Parkway at Crystal River in Citrus County; another would extend the Suncoast north to the Georgia line in Jefferson County, just east of Tallahassee. The third would cut through Florida’s heartland from Collier County in Naples north to Polk County, between Orlando and Tampa.

Three regional task forces have held hearings about the roads and have heard overwhelming public opposition to all three. Nevertheless, like a bulldozer on autopilot, the Florida Department of Transportation is moving ahead with the next expensive planning phase, following the Legislature’s orders.

Yet not a single comprehensive study says these rural roads are needed. Even the three regional task forces, with broad representation from all levels of government, could not establish a need for them. As FDOT’s chief engineer, Will Watts, told the Senate Transportation Committee on Jan. 12: “The need for the full length of the corridor has not been determined.”

With Florida facing a budget deficit of an estimated $5.4 billion over two years, and with so much intense grass-roots opposition, there’s simply no justification to move forward.

In rural Levy County, where two of the toll roads would converge, commissioners favor a “no build” option. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group included M-CORES on a list of the biggest transportation boondoggles in the country. Even Florida TaxWatch, a business-backed policy group that has long supported tax-supported transportation projects, raises serious doubts as to whether the Suncoast Connector can meet financial conditions required by law.

“A risky project,” TaxWatch called the connector, “with little demonstrated transportation need.”

To satisfy bondholders, there must be sufficient traffic on the three new roads. State law says per-mile toll receipts must meet or exceed receipts on the much busier Florida’s Turnpike to pay the costs of construction. But given the lack of need, that’s a risky gamble.

As a leading environmental group, 1000 Friends of Florida, has noted, in this time of deep economic uncertainty, it is fiscally irresponsible for the state to commit billions of dollars to roads with no demonstrated need or financial feasibility. To further complicate matters, the coronavirus has decimated state transportation revenues because people are driving a lot less.

By law, construction on these toll roads must begin by Dec. 31, 2022. That’s why, with legislative committees preparing the agenda for the annual spring session, something needs to happen now.

It can be tough to challenge the pet project of a predecessor, but today’s Senate President, Wilton Simpson, has shown a willingness to do so. A couple months back, he tried to pull the plug on former Senate President Joe Negron’s pet project — a much-needed reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

Simpson has a far stronger case for pulling the plug on these unneeded and unwanted rural toll roads. Florida has higher priorities.

Online: https://www.sun-sentinel.com

___

Jan. 23

The Daytona Beach News-Journal on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ COVID-19 rules:

How much power does Florida’s governor have in an emergency?

Clearly, it’s a lot. It would have to be. When a Category 5 storm is bearing down on the state or wildfire is menacing subdivisions, big decisions must be made in a hurry.

But what constitutes an emergency? How long does it last? Who decides if the governor has gone too far?

And what do we do about the fact that Gov. Ron DeSantis has abused the undeniable emergency of the coronavirus pandemic to issue orders that make Floridians and visitors more vulnerable to infection?

This question has been hanging in the air since September, when DeSantis dropped an executive order that shattered the authority of county and city governments to protect their residents with local mask ordinances, restrictions on big gatherings and other safety measures.

The order didn’t wipe any local ordinances off the books or block new rules. But it suspended the ability for any governmental agency in Florida to collect “fines and penalties” for violations of coronavirus-related local rules.

So the local rules still exist. They’re just gutted and ignorable. And Floridians know it.

This was a bad idea in September, when infection rates were relatively low. It’s a disaster now, with new COVID-19 infections topping 11,000 a day and a more contagious, deadlier strain of the coronavirus starting to show up across the state.

It’s telling that the September order (which was extended in November) doesn’t even address COVID-19 as a public health threat. Instead, the governor identifies “economic harm as a result of COVID19-related closures” as the real emergency. Doesn’t he see the economic harm of Florida’s growing reputation as a COVID hotspot?

Nor does he address how mandatory mask-wearing ordinances, in particular, hurt Florida’s business sector. A dollar is a dollar, whether a customer is wearing a mask or not.

For some Floridians, the knowledge that they could end up shopping near, or seated next to, someone who refuses to take basic health precautions has probably kept them away from local businesses. Meanwhile, front-line employees of those businesses have little defense against the science-defying “covidiots” who force their way into stores or restaurants.

Why would the governor do this? For that matter, why has DeSantis so doggedly ducked and downplayed the lethal impact of the coronavirus? Under DeSantis, the state has muzzled public health officials, withheld infection data and botched the vaccine rollout.

DeSantis’ intransigence is aided and abetted by Florida’s emergency-powers statute, which only has one safeguard: Executive orders can be overridden by the Legislature. That prospect may be shifting from a sarcastic “yeah, right” to “maybe.”

In December, the USA Today-Florida Network’s John Kennedy reported that some Republican lawmakers are warming up to a proposal that would steamroll DeSantis’s theft of local authority by making mask-wearing mandatory statewide, as states such as Texas and Alabama have already done.

In the meantime, city and county leaders who are fed up with the governor’s heavy-handed approach and have mask ordinances on the books should enforce them — complete with fines.

That’s already happening in a few areas. Orange, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have all gone back to issuing fines, mostly against businesses.

DeSantis is exceeding his real authority under state law. Lives are at stake, and it’s time to push back.

Online: https://www.news-journalonline.com